Heavy Batteries

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Robert E. Lee's "Dry Land Merrimac" is often cited as the world's first railroad battery to see combat. As McClellan advanced up the Virginia

The most significant use of heavy rail batteries by Union forces occurred during essentially siege operations such as the Petersburg campaign of 1864-65. The railroads were an excellent way to move heavy guns into position, and the Union rail batteries could roll out to bombard Confederate earthworks before retiring to safety. This front view of such a weapon shows that the embrasure allowed some leeway for the gun's elevation, if not for traverse. It is unclear from this image whether or not the face of the sloping shield, bolted onto the thick wooden beams and planking, is covered with rolled iron strips. (LC)

Petersburg Parrott Railway GunWwwheavybatteris ComLees Dryland Merrimac

Rear view of the same railroad battery near Petersburg. It probably mounts a 32-pdr; the top of the siege carriage is visible. Like the Confederate "Dry Land Merrimac," this battery features seven axles and a thick wooden casemate, but unlike that pioneering weapon its sides are exposed.

Peninsula in 1862, taking control of the Richmond & York River Railroad near the Chickahominy River, he constructed "blinds" along the roadbed to conceal his operations. General Lee surmised that McClellan might even be constructing a railroad battery behind the screening, and therefore decided to confront the possible threat with a weapon of his own. On June 5, Lee asked Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas to coordinate with the CS Navy in constructing an iron-plated car. Lieutenant John M. Brooke - one of the principal designers in the conversion of the fire-gutted hull of the USS Merrimac into the ironclad CSS Virginia - also designed Lee's land-based ironclad, hence its somewhat facetious name. Since the Navy built the ironclad car, Lee requested that Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory have naval personnel man it; in fact, although the crew selected were not sailors, they had served with the navy (and, by a remarkable coincidence, even aboard the real Merrimac.)

Rear view of the same railroad battery near Petersburg. It probably mounts a 32-pdr; the top of the siege carriage is visible. Like the Confederate "Dry Land Merrimac," this battery features seven axles and a thick wooden casemate, but unlike that pioneering weapon its sides are exposed.


An artist's impression of the Confederate heavy battery that went into action on June 29,1862 at Savage's Station on the Virginia Peninsula, commanded by Lt James E. Barry. Built by the same yard and to similar specifications as the superstructure of a Confederate ironclad ship, it featured an 18in wooden casemate and an iron skin and apron. The open top and back provided ventilation as well as a quick escape route for the crew. Since Lee expected it to combat heavy Union guns also mounted on railroad cars, it may have had as much armor plating as its naval namesake: a 2in inner layer of 6in-wide rolled iron strips fixed horizontally, and a 2in outer layer secured vertically. When the CS Navy delivered the railroad battery, with its rifled and banded 32-pdr, they also provided 200 rounds of ammunition including 15in solid bolt shot. According to one account, the Land Merrimac weighed around 60 tons, making it nearly three times heavier than the locomotive propelling it (while the engine lacked armor, it did have a protective layer of cotton bales fixed to the cab.) After Savage's Station, Union prisoners were shocked by the moving gun and asked their captors how they transported it, to which the Confederates jokingly replied, "by forty horses." The Land Merrimac held up well against small arms and field artillery, but the roadbed, locomotive and tender were another matter.

The highly versatile United Artillery of Norfolk, then stationed at Fort Norfolk, were trained as light artillery, heavy artillery, and infantry, and while they fought in all those capacities they also served on board Confederate ships. When the Navy was about to launch the CSS Virginia into action they lacked the sailors to man all her guns, so they called for volunteers. The United Artillery flatly refused to serve under naval officers, and the Navy Department didn't care which officers they served under so long as they served. The company then volunteered to a man, but only 31 were selected along with their own officers. Now Lt James E. Barry, Sgt Daniel Knowles, and 13 men would comprise the crew of the land version, while N. S. Walker, a York River Railroad engineer, volunteered to drive them into battle. On June 24, 1862 the battery was officially handed over to the Army; however, on its "maiden voyage" one of the timbers under the heavy 32-pdr gun broke, and it was June 28 before the Confederacy's latest oddity chugged down the tracks again from Richmond, on its way to its historic debut at the battle of Savage's Station.

On June 29 heavy fighting once again broke out on the Peninsula as McClellan pulled his army back toward the James River; Lee pressed forward, ordering MajGen John B. Magruder's division to spearhead the assault along the Nine Mile road. With steam up, Lt Barry sat within the Confederate lines about 6 miles from Richmond awaiting orders, and at around 10am Magruder sent him forward. After a mile the battery had to stop for some time to clear away heavy obstructions left on the tracks by the retreating Federals. When it had pushed forward to a point near the clearing by Savage's house the rail battery stopped for the engineer to speak with BrigGen Richard Griffith; suddenly, a Union shell burst next to the armored car and mortally wounded the Mississippi brigadier. The "Land Merrimac" immediately rumbled forward and, with its much larger shells, silenced the

Savage Station

June 29,1862: the battle of Savage's Station. The explosions and fires show where the Federals are destroying their own ammunition trains. Down the tracks to the left, about halfway between the explosion and the edge, another puff of smoke may be the artist's attempt to indicate the location of Gen Lee's "Dry Land Merrimac." At the right are Federal hospital tents. (LC)

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Union battery before firing on the woods nearby. Later that afternoon the rail battery was sent forward with Confederate skirmishers, and fired into several Union positions including a train. The Federals were forming a line of battle in Savage's field, and Magruder ordered Barry to move a quarter-mile closer and fire on them. After a couple of rounds the Union infantry . \ scattered into the woods and i regrouped. More infantry poured into the woods in support, and a battery of Federal Parrot guns opened up on the "Land Merrimac." With the locomotive completely exposed, Barry had to pull back under an absolute hail of fire, but under their thick armor the gun car crew were completely unscathed. Although this experimental weapon had its share of detractors it did prove rather effective. According to a Union signal officer, "the range and service of the piece were splendid, and its fire was most annoying." A Union prisoner who was captured that day estimated that the iron monster killed or wounded 100 men and 30 horses.

Magruder certainly had faith in the concept, because he had a heavy battery built in Galveston after his transfer to Texas. Magruder hoped to liberate the occupied city by a bold attack using boats, the railroad, artillery and infantry. The Federals were not heavily invested in Galveston, and their main force consisted of six gunboats in the bay including the USS Harriet Lane, with a couple of hundred infantrymen on the wharves. At one point they had planned to destroy the 2-mile long railroad bridge connecting Galveston Island with the Texas mainland by ramming it with a burning ship, and they would later regret having changed their minds. Under cover of darkness, Magruder used the railroad to transport six siege guns into the city and distribute them near the wharf; an additional 14 field pieces and the railroad battery would complete his artillery. Lacking the means to construct iron plating, Magruder's new heavy rail battery was protected with a breastwork of 5001b cotton bales. Magruder's plan was that the artillery should open up on the US Navy gunboats in the bay, while infantry and dismounted dragoons with scaling ladders assaulted the Union infantry occupying the wharf; all this would distract the Union sailors while two Confederate attack boats, carrying boarding parties protected by cotton bales, steamed into the bay to ram them.

John Bankhead Magruder, nicknamed "Prince John," may have been flamboyant, but his penchant for theatrics paid off for the Confederacy. After driving the Federals from Galveston, TX, Magruder made good use of the island's railroad lines; the six forts on the island, as well as that at Virginia Point on the mainland, were all joined by rail. When the Union blockading ships returned to harass the city Magruder simply loaded what guns he had onto cars and rolled them from one location to another, allowing them to fire at each stop, thereby creating the illusion that every fort contained a full battery. This ruse, along with some fake "Quaker guns," made the island appear much better defended than it actually was. (LC)

Early on the morning of New Year's Day, 1863, Magruder's guns opened the attack. The Union gunboats immediately responded with a fire heavy enough that Magruder's gun positions began to crumble. The cotton-armored rail gun, exchanging shots with the USS Harriet Lane at about 300 yards' range, proved no match for her. The assault infantry waded into the water with their ladders, but were soon driven back by shellfire and musketry. The Confederate attack boats were late; many of the Southern artillery crews abandoned their guns and fell back, and all seemed lost by the time the cotton-clad steamers finally came into view. However, the seaborne Confederates promptly rammed, boarded, and captured the Harriet Lane, then took or drove off the remainder of the Union squadron. Although Magruder's rail battery was ineffective on that occasion the Confederates were undeterred; Texas engineers constructed a second railroad gun to defend their city, this time with a turret, indicating that it must have housed a light field gun.

On the other flank of the Confederacy, BrigGen Joseph Finegan made a heavy rail battery part of his arsenal while defending Florida from Union attack. Like Magruder's gun in Galveston, Finegan's was a 32-pdr naval gun in a siege carriage mounted on a flatcar, the whole thing protected by cotton bales and pushed into action by a locomotive. After establishing a successful garrison on Amelia Island off the northeast coast of Florida, the Federals occupied and then abandoned Jacksonville several times during the course of the war, and when they held it in the spring of 1863 they built their own defensive works around the city. Finegan ordered his railroad battery to steam along the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Central line to within i'A miles of Jacksonville; the gun crew opened fire on the Federal defenses, but soon had to retire when Union gunboats let loose a barrage. The next day Federal columns marched out of the city to attack Finegan's troops, and once again he sent out his cotton-clad battery, this time with cavalry and infantry on its flanks. The Northerners had an armed car of their own, apparently pushed by hand and mounting a 12-pdr Parrot as well as a small



exposed when manning their gun; however, the great advantage to this design is that the gun, mounted on a pivot, would have a clear field of fire over a wide arc, unlike an enclosed ironclad with only three portholes to shoot from.

A howitzer car was the simplest and easiest type of railroad battery to put into action, and it could be hitched to the back or, as here, to the front of a train, thanks to the coupling bar mounted at the top of the cowcatcher. This Confederate crew are manning a 12-pdr mountain howitzer on a five-stake flatcar of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, guarded by infantry who can deploy to skirmish at need.

Fortified positions protected with 5001b cotton bales were not uncommon during the Civil War; the large bale would absorb bullets and offered some protection against field artillery fragments. However, when subjected to direct US naval gunfire some of the cotton bales protecting Confederate ships were simply whisked from the deck, along with anything else in the way. Cotton could also catch fire, and defenders had to be prepared to put out the flames. This speculative reconstruction shows a 32-pdr gun mounted on a barbette carriage and placed on a heavy timber seven-axle flatbed. General John B. Magruder employed a cotton-armored heavy battery at Galveston on January 1, 1863, though it proved no match for the guns of the USS Harriet Lane.



Some ironclad cars were only partially armored. The Union ironclad seen here, hitched at the end of a train behind a USMRR boxcar, is based on a sketch in an 1862 edition of Harper's Weekly. The basis is a flatcar, roughly 32ft long; the gun position has a low, inwards-slanting "prow" and sidewalls made of lengths of railroad track - "T-rails" (though actually the section was more like an I-beam) - bolted to a wooden superstructure, leaving the top and rear open. When under fire, the riflemen on board could crouch down for protection and act as sharpshooters. The artillery crew would be

Artillery RailroadConfederate Armored Trains

Before the war Joseph Finegan, a lawyer and planter, had helped construct the Florida Railroad. As a Confederate brigadier general he would try unsuccessfully to mediate between David Yulee, president of the company, and Florida Governor John Milton, who wanted to seize the company's rails for more urgent use elsewhere. Finegan was also a believer in heavy rail batteries, employing them both at Jacksonville in 1863 and at Olustee the following February. (LC)

swivel gun. The Parrot crew were busy trying to blow up a railroad culvert to prevent Finegan's heavy gun from advancing on them when a section of Florida field artillery moved up to outflank them; when the cotton-clad also came within range the Federals, heavily outgunned and caught in a crossfire, promptly retired. Thus ended one of the rare episodes when two armed railroad cars actually fought each other. The next day the Federals came out again and tried to destroy the tracks, and once more Finegan's rail battery drove them off.

At the battle of Olustee on February 20, 1864, Finegan used another heavy railroad gun. This battery - commanded by Lt Drury Rambo, and mounting a 30-pdr Parrot with a crew of 14 - was ordered to fall back some distance along the tracks of the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Central Railroad and await orders. Rambo could not fire at the Federals from that position with any safety since there were too many Southern infantry in the thick pine forest, who would also sustain injuries from trees shattered by his heavy gun. Eventually the Northerners fell back in earnest, and Rambo was ordered to fire into their scattered regiments; the results achieved are unknown, but the only damage to Rambo's railroad battery was five cracked spokes on one wheel of the gun carriage, which apparently broke during recoil.

Probably the most famous railborne heavy piece was the Dictator, a 13in seacoast mortar employed by Federal forces in the bombardment of Petersburg. It was rolled down the line on this four-axle car, then moved onto a fixed platform for firing. With a 20lb propellant charge it could lob a 220lb explosive bomb nearly a mile. (LC)

Axle Mine Rail CarsWwwheavybatteris Com

A blurred but rare image of the Dictator in position. Just visible at far right is a pole car carrying three powder kegs; ahead of it the mortar's taller four-axle transport car butts up against the mortar platform. Left oftheendofthe foot plank, two men stand in the doorway of a munitions bunker cut into the hill; this bunker can still be seen today. (LC)

While such mobile heavy artillery certainly set a precedent in land warfare, its great weaknesses were its cumbersome weight and limited field of fire. Before Lee commissioned the Navy to construct his Land Merrimac he sent his chief engineer to inspect the roadbed along the York River Railroad to see if the tracks could withstand the weight. Even with a locomotive a heavy battery car was difficult to move, and its field of fire was limited to the same direction the tracks were laid. Despite these drawbacks, however, a 32-pdr rail battery could still move into position and open fire faster than a typical horse-drawn field battery, and with a single shot from its longer range it could deliver 641b of explosive ordnance directly into an enemy position - a considerable threat.

Not the least of the benefits of such a weapon at that time was its psychological impact. Rail batteries provided a real boost to the morale of troops accompanying them; soldiers would write home to their wives and families extolling the merits of these heavy guns, which could advance with them and strike fear into the enemy.

A blurred but rare image of the Dictator in position. Just visible at far right is a pole car carrying three powder kegs; ahead of it the mortar's taller four-axle transport car butts up against the mortar platform. Left oftheendofthe foot plank, two men stand in the doorway of a munitions bunker cut into the hill; this bunker can still be seen today. (LC)

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